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Published April 12, 2010, 12:21 PM

Probe into soybean groups nearly over

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department Inspector General is close to finishing a two-year investigation of the soybean research and promotion program that has split the industry and involves charges of a knife fight, sexual harassment and misspending, according to a spokesman for the Inspector General.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department Inspector General is close to finishing a two-year investigation of the soybean research and promotion program that has split the industry and involves charges of a knife fight, sexual harassment and misspending, according to a spokesman for the Inspector General.

“We anticipate completing our review and issuing our findings by early May,” Paul Feeney, the spokesman, said in an April 8 e-mail.

Tensions boil over

The origins of the investigation lie in conflicts between the American Soybean Association, a producers’ group that lobbies on domestic policy, and the United Soybean Board, a group that collects and spends the money that farmers have voted to pay for research and promotion.

There have long been tensions between the American Soybean Association, which has to work hard to persuade farmers to join and pay dues for lobbying operations, and the United Soybean Board, which gets its 0.5 percent of the price of each bushel sold collected by country elevators automatically in a checkoff program and then gets more money from USDA.

The American Soybean Association campaigned to set up the checkoff and has been the cooperator group through which the USDA money flowed, but in fall 2008, the U.S. Soybean Export Council, a joint venture of the two soybean groups to promote foreign sales, voted to remove the American Soybean Association as the cooperator group.

In reaction, the American Soybean Association petitioned outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to request that the USDA Inspector General investigate the soybean board, the export council and the management of the whole soybean checkoff program. The petition, which was summarized on the soybean association Web site, noted that farmers had paid $1.3 billion in checkoff assessments over 17 years and contained allegations of misspending.

But that was nothing compared with the allegation that an export council official had pulled a knife on a soybean association official in Branson, Mo., when the soybean groups held an executive retreat in that center of wholesome, old-fashioned music shows — and the allegation that an export council official had an improper sexual relationship, disrupting the management of the Japan foreign office and jeopardizing U.S. soy exports to that market.

By law, the Agriculture Department oversees the checkoff program and the ag secretary appoints the members of the United Soybean Board, so Schafer signed off on the investigation shortly before he left office. Some soybean farmers aligned with the checkoff board were so angry they formed an alternative to the American Soybean Association.

Reunited?

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and this March, at the Commodity Classic, a joint meeting of soybean, corn, wheat and sorghum farmers in California, the soybean groups announced they were back together with a joint export strategy. At that meeting it soon became clear that the tensions still lingered. The American Soybean Association attempted to pass a resolution asking its board to rescind a separate Freedom of Information Act petition for communication documents between the export council and USDA agencies, but the proposal was so controversial it had to be put to a paper ballot vote and then failed 2-1.

The release of the Inspector General report may cause farmers and policymakers to focus again on what “Agri-Pulse,” an ag newsletter, dubbed “sex, knives and soybean politics.” The Inspector General often recommends changes to programs it investigates.

One soybean official who requested anonymity lamented that the soybean growers appeared to be determined to keep conflicts alive and said he hopes the growers will decide to concentrate on policy and sales rather than their internal squabbles.

The American Soybean Association releases on the case may be found in the 2008 newsroom section of the Web site www.soygrowers.com

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